Amidst the vast, arid plains of South African sheep country slumbers a one horse town called Victoria West. While on assignment – my first for a rather prestigious travel magazine – a journalist and I stopped there on our godforsaken trek through the Great Karoo. It was almost noon and since we’ve been on the road since well before dawn, we decided to grab lunch.
As we got out of the car in front of a dilapidated diner on Main Street, I was dizzy with exhaustion. I didn’t sleep much the night before, and the muddy tide of truck stop coffee, along with the effort of idle talk on the open road, had left me feeling frazzled.
Two street kids, ashen with hunger and cold, approached us just as we were about to enter through the revolving door. They were bent over like old men, dragging the crippling poverty of generations behind them in the dust. Politely, they asked for spare change. The journo, a world-weary voyager, gravely shook his head. I fished out my wallet and handed them whatever meagre coins I could find. The palms that shot out from the frayed sleeves were calloused, as if they wrestled day and night with some terrible iron angel I could never comprehend. The wrists were impossibly thin.
Just before the coins disappeared into tattered pockets, I noticed, as if for the first time, the springbok engraved on their backs. In the silver winter sun it looked like they would much rather be out frolicking in the great wide open surrounding us, instead of being caught in the fiery ring that has dulled mankind and burnt down the Palace of Love. It seemed like all parties left the exchange a little disappointed.
As we stepped into the dim inner sanctum of the diner, the warmth and tinny 70’s hits blaring from the walls suddenly made me feel hungry. We slowly made our way through the deserted tables to a sunny corner at the far end.
“What the fuck!” a voice boomed from the bar to our left. We swung around. A fist of burly men, dressed in what appeared to be military fatigues, were hunched close together at the counter. They were eyeing us hard with that odd mix of envy and contempt which the coarse salt of the earth reserve for city slickers. I’ve seen it many times before. The frontman rose unsteadily from his stool to speak again. “Looks like you could kill someone with that thing,” he quipped, pointing at the bulky Nikon on my hip. I quickly glanced at the litter of bottles at their elbows. Brandy and Coke. Block-and-tackle. May be trouble, but maybe not.
“In that case,” I said as I raised the camera as if to squeeze off a shot, “don’t move.”
This seemed to crack them up no end. Apparently approving of my fearless wit, much back-slapping and slurred guffawing followed. As it turned out, they were local hunters touring the extensive game lodge circuit in the area and they promptly insisted that we, fresh meat from the glistening media towers of the south, join them in their revelry. I respectfully declined, explaining that we still had a long way to go and just wanted to get some grub. This seemed to expel us once again from the throng of boozy camaraderie. The frontman shrugged his shoulders. “Eating is cheating,” he snarled as a syrupy belch escaped from somewhere deep within his camouflaged bulk. He quickly turned his back on us and the circle snapped shut again, heavy with bruised pride and a vague scent of danger.
The journo had done a good job of trying to look bored throughout. When we finally slid into a booth at the back and he started paging through the menu, I noticed that his hands were shaking. After the waitress had left with our order, we simply sat for what appeared to be an eternity in loaded silence. When the steaming game pie finally arrived, I quickly reached for the knife and fork. My hands were as steady as the frozen horizon that still flashed behind my eyes.
Just as I was about to let rip, the two street kids sauntered up to our window. Assumingly unaware of us, one hustled up against the pane, sniping through a hole in the frosted vinyl to catch a glimpse of the luxurious dreamworld shimmering within. My stomach jammed like a red-hot carbine, and I pushed the plate away.
This time I fired.